This is the story of how a quality Greek beer brewed with a batch of very-Sacramento hops came to life and is now appearing on the refrigerated shelves at Corti Brothers. It is made with an intriguing blend of happenstance, curiosity, connections, persistence, planning and pride of place.
Last year, during a trip to Greece in which they tasted 400 wines, Darrell Corti and Rick Mindermann of Corti Brothers happened upon the Santorini Brewing Co. They chatted with Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, the winemaker and co-founder of Gaia Wines, a company created to show off the potential of the indigenous Greek grape varieties to wine enthusiasts worldwide.
Paraskevopoulos is also a partner in the young craft beer company and is passionate about creating beer big on flavor and balance. At one point, the subject of ingredients came up – and so did Mindermann’s Sacramento pride. As a young man some 35 years ago, Mindermann remembers the great hop fields in what is now the Campus Commons neighborhood, along with acres and acres of hops in Sloughhouse. He mentioned the region’s proud past as a hop-growing capital and its current efforts to reconnect with that piece of local agricultural history.
“We tasted his beer and I said, ‘Hey, how about we send you some hops from Sacramento?’ ” Mindermann said. “This was an idea among friends and kind of for fun.”
Soon, Mindermann had pledged to ship Sacramento-grown hops back to Greece so Santorini Brewing could dabble in American-style and West Coast-style brewing, a flavorful, hop-forward approach that is flourishing in many parts of the world.
In some respects, the latest wave of hop-growing in Sacramento has been at the behest of Corti, who, as the story goes, challenged Ruhstaller owner J-E Paino to be true to the Ruhstaller ethos of a century ago and make Sacramento beer using Sacramento ingredients. Paino took it to heart. Three years ago, he planted rows of hops along Interstate 80 near Dixon. He came up with the tag line “We grow beer,” and he inspired others to plant hops, too.
Back in the U.S., Mindermann asked Paino if he could send some locally grown hops to this upstart craft brewery in Santorini as a goodwill gesture and an expression of local pride. Paino was only too happy to oblige, shipping a passel of Cascade hops from Dixon along with an heirloom varietal grown in Sloughhouse.
Months passed. Since all of Santorini’s beers have “Donkey” in the name, Mindermann suggested “California Donkey,” but when that wouldn’t fit on the label, they went with “Eureka Donkey.” Unfiltered and with an amber hue, this beer’s body, flavor and hop character make it drink somewhere between a pale ale and an IPA.
Amazingly, the shipment came from Greece in a refrigerated cargo container, meaning there is an abundance of freshness and hoppiness with this beer.
Paino says he could readily smell and taste the telltale notes of the locally grown hops. As he likes to tell people, part of the demise of our local hop industry was triggered by Budweiser’s lament that our local hops simply had too much flavor for a lager that was brewed to appeal to the masses.
“It tastes great. I think it came out fantastic,” he said of Eureka Donkey. “It’s smooth and spicy and still a little citrusy.”
Is it a West Coast IPA? Not if you think of hoppy beers brewed by Stone, Ballast Point, Russian River, Knee Deep or Device. Maybe a toned-down interpretation. The big aromas of pine and citrus are rather muted, as is the bitterness on the finish, and the refined flavors would never be called big and bold. But it is a very smooth, drinkable and rather elegant beer.
“What’s fun is it gives you an opportunity to become more familiar with the character of the hops that are grown here. They are unique and they have style – and it’s a pleasant style,” Paino added.
Eureka Donkey is now available at Corti Brothers in individual bottles or as a six-pack. Santorini Brewing shipped 80 cases of 24 bottles.
As I reported nearly two years ago, Corti’s Todd Fancher has curated an excellent and always-evolving beer selection at the store. This latest development, equal parts whimsy and earnestness, highlight’s the grocer’s commitment to craft beer, its encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s food and drink history and its passion for moving the local industry forward.